Envision Athens, the consultant-facilitated effort to map out a plan for the next 20 years in Athens-Clarke County, is moving into a new phase.
Three of the 10 “stakeholder” groups assembled as part of Envision Athens — comprising residents with particular expertise in areas ranging from education to land use to housing to social services — recently put the finishing touches on their proposed sets of goals for the community.
Proposals from the environment/agriculture, the neighborhood and civic vitality, and the cultural resources groups will be forwarded to planningNEXT, the Ohio-based consulting firm working under a $190,000 contract with the county government. Those proposals will be integrated with other data gathered from the community as part of the preparation of a draft plan.
That draft plan could be ready for community review this month, according to Sharyn Dickerson, an Athens-Clarke County commissioner serving as co-chair of the 38-member Envision Athens steering committee.
In addition to the work done by the stakeholder groups, Envision Athens has included a number of community forums at which participants were asked to imagine what they want Athens-Clarke County to look like in 20 years. In its work thus far, planningNEXT has integrated the thousands of comments from those forums into its efforts.
As just one example of the work done by the 10 stakeholder groups, the cultural resources group — comprising local arts and culture professionals including Amy Kissane of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, Julie Darnell of the Athens-Clarke County Library and Hillary Brown of the Georgia Museum of Art — worked last week to refine one of its goals.
The group struggled with the idea of assessing and increasing the economic impact of the arts and culture on the community. In the end, the group settled on a recommendation calling for an initial measurement of that impact — both in terms of money spent locally by artists and tourism dollars attracted to the community by its culture offerings —and calling for some annual percentage increase, in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent, each year for the next 20 years.
Focusing on the cultural aspects of its work, the group is also suggesting that one element of the 20-year Envision Athens plan should be the identification of barriers to inclusion and engagement across the community, as a means of increasing the diversity of the community’s cultural life.
Also among the group’s suggested goals is a plan for addressing local historic resources.
In terms of concrete actions that might be taken to reach the proposed goal of boosting the place of the arts in Athens-Clarke County, local artist Broderick Flanigan suggested Thursday there should be “a strong component of local government funding art.”
Additionally, Flanigan suggested, it might be a good idea for some assistance in writing grant proposals to be made available to the local arts community.
Grants are a significant source of funding for the arts, but according to Flanigan, “We don’t have the artist pool here with the skills to write a great proposal.”
As Envision Athens got under way late last year, Jamie Greene of planningNEXT told steering committee that in its early stages, the planning process would seem disjointed, but urged the committee to “trust the process.”
“We’re still trying to ‘trust the process,’” Dickerson said as a stakeholder meeting concluded. But she went on to say that the direction of the planning initiative “seems like, to me, it’s getting a lot more clear now.”
The full cost of the Envision Athens plan is set at $244,500. The bulk of the money not going to planningNEXT will go to Ninigret Partners, a Rhode Island firm that works in economic development and management, and communications consulting. Other dollars in the contract will go to the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government for facilitation services in connection with community discussions.
Envision Athens has not been without its critics. In January, the steering committee released a set of talking points to counter suggestions that the process was, in fact, dominated by institutional stakeholders. In those talking points, the committee said it was “essential” to have those stakeholders involved in the process, as part of a “multitude of actors that have the ability to affect … change” in Athens-Clarke County.
The committee’s talking points went on to suggest that, until Envision Athens, efforts to improve the community had been undertaken in “a more fragmented fashion, and many of the more complex systemic issues facing the community remain largely unchanged.”
“There’s still some skepticism out there,” Athens-Clarke County Manager Blaine Williams said. But, he added, the diverse approach taken by Envision Athens has meant that any preconceived notions about the community have been”absolutely absent” from much of the process.